Gay Former Nun Reflects On Homosexuality And The Church

Jan 8, 2014

Mary Dispenza came out of the closet more than 20 years ago. At the time, the former nun was directing pastoral nun services at the Seattle Archdiocese. Once Mary came out as gay, the church wouldn’t let her keep her position for long. Dispenza said that watching the gay vice principal of Eastside Catholic High School has been painful, and, after 20 years, a little too close to home for comfort.

Following is a transcript of Dispenza’s conversation with Marcie Sillman on The Record.

MS: Can you tell us exactly what happened 20 years ago?

MD: Yes, interestingly enough it seems like a long, long time ago, and then it just seems like yesterday.

What happened was, for many, many years, I denied the fact that I was lesbian and had an affection and attraction for women. And that connects to the church, also, because sexuality is and has been so suppressed. So, one fine day, all of a sudden, I’m acknowledging and telling the truth about how I love.

And it just so happens that at that time I was directing the pastoral life services for the Catholic Archdiocese. For me, it was a day of great celebration. I was extremely ecstatic because finally, I knew how I loved. So I told my colleagues and tried very hard to see the archbishop previous to that and for whatever reason I didn’t get an appointment with him for several months.

So in the meantime I continued to tell my friends and again, continued to try to see him. And the person I got to see, in the meantime, was the vicar of religious at the time and I told her about my story and about coming out. And this is a piece I remember her saying to me, “You know Mary, you don’t need to tell anybody. You can just keep this quiet.”

MS: It’s sort of like the Army’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

MD: Exactly, and at that time Greta (Margarethe) Cammermeyer had just been in the same predicament that I was in.

MS: And she was a colonel in the military and came out and lost her job; embarked on a legal fight.

MD: Exactly. So I remember saying, “That’s not good enough for me. I cannot keep silent.” And I left her office and continued to learn about my life and eventually I was featured in The Seattle Times in an article that they sensationalized with a headline, “Ex-nun comes out of the closet.” And yet I had not been a nun for many, many years.

However, in that article, I was asked what does the Catholic church teach about homosexuality. And I said, the church teaches that you can be who you are but you can’t live that out. And I could’ve put a period, but for the first time I found my voice and I said I don’t believe that God would gift us with our different sexualities and not let us them live those out in return.

MS: What happened?

MD: Well, that did me under, so to speak. When I finally got to see the archbishop after my job had been terminated, he said those were the lines that caused me to break allegiance with the Catholic Church. He said I broke allegiance with the Catholic Church when I spoke those words.

MS: Now you have been watching, I’m sure with great personal interest, the story of the former vice-principal at Eastside Catholic High School Mark Zumuda who, I’m not sure if he was openly gay or not, but it was after he legally married his partner that he says he was forced to resign. What was your reaction?

MD: Mixed feelings, sadness in that this was 20 years later. In this regard, the church has not moved. And, and we live in a different world and I would like to think that the Catholic Church could change, grow, become so much than what it is. So, this coming around again really saddened me and caused me to return to my own story. And the piece about even alluding to the fact that Zmuda could possibly divorce so that he could keep his job —

MS: And let me just backtrack, because that was something that subsequently came out, that he told, I believe a student interviewer, that he had been told, “Well, if you [Zmuda] would consider divorcing your husband, you might be able to keep your job.” Which brings up some questions for me, because I thought divorce wasn’t part of the policy of the Catholic Church either.

MD: Exactly. In a way, to me, it gets back to that secrecy thing. “We can make this right if you are willing to, adjust your life. Don’t live in sync with it.” Which is so contradictory to what God, I believe, asks of us.

MS: This is also, as you mentioned you thought the church should’ve come some ways since 1992 —there’s a new pope. And Pope Francis caused quite a stir when he said on an airplane trip from South America back to Italy, ‘Who am I to judge gay members of the priesthood?’ He was speaking specifically of people who are ordained in the Catholic Church. How does that rhetoric reconcile with something like Mr. Zmuda losing his job?

MD: It doesn’t reconcile. And my immediate response to Francis’s remark is first, I’m glad to hear a positive remark, and secondly, I thought, on the other hand, the church and you do judge gay persons and you may say, who am I to judge, but as the representative of the Catholic Church that holds the position that it’s OK to be gay, but you cannot live the gay life and embrace the love that you’re called to. So it’s a contradiction and that’s where I find mostly the fault with the churches in the inconsistencies, they can hold their positions, but you can’t speak both. Respecting the gay persons and not allowing them --

MS: To be who they are --

MD: To be who they are. It’s a gross contradiction.

MS: There’s been quite an uproar from the student body and from many of the parents. Students have been protesting continually since this forced resignation. What does that say to you?

MD: I am so proud of the students. And, let’s give credit to the Catholic schools. Especially Eastside Catholic. That’s what Eastside Catholic has, that’s what they have created. Young students who speak out, tell the truth and aren’t afraid. So, hooray. And, after I came out I volunteered for 15 years with the Lambert House, which is a homeless drop in center for homeless youth. Especially gay youth who are sometimes thrown out of their homes, because of the religious positions of their families.

MS: That gives you some hope. What would you say to Mark Zmuda if you had the chance to speak with him?

MD: I would thank him. Thank you, Mark, for telling the truth and being bold and brave. I honor your love and your life. It’s because of people like you that the students you teach can have hope for a better world and an opportunity to live without shame, the love and lives God has called them to.

MS: What’s your relationship with the Catholic Church these days?

MD: I’m not Catholic. It’s very hard for me to say that, even at this point in my life.

I feel with these kinds of situations as a gay person, the choices I had were to stay in the church and work within the church to change things or leave the church and work outside of the church to change things. I had invested so much of my life in the Catholic Church, I did not want to fight for the church in any way. I chose to continue my spiritual life in my own way, to try to live the gospel of love reconciliation and compassion and live out my truth.

Produced for the Web by Brieana D. Ripley.